June 26, 2007
A Course in Fluid DynamicsAs a way of saying thanks for a year of volunteering our Habitat affiliate sent my roommates and me to the US National Whitewater Center...which is right here in Charlotte by the Catawba River.
After a brief explanation of safety procedures we were given all the necessary equipment: a helmet, a life-jacket (which even came with a specialized pillow, designed by the US Coast Guard, in case you fall over board that pops up to keep your head somewhat out of the water), and a paddle.
Our group was divided in half. Myself and four of my Americorps roommates were in one guided raft, and our other roommates were in another. Our guide quickly showed us the basic maneuvers to control the raft. This included: paddling, quickly sitting in the bottom of the raft to focus weight in the center (handy for 'surfing' rapids), and how to lean into a rapid as you go down into it (which, as he explained is slightly counter intuitive but important or staying in the raft when it comes threw the rapid on the other side). He kept his raft a little low on air, because as he explained, it makes the ride a little more 'bouncy'.
This was my first time whitewater rafting, and at first I was skeptical of how well an artificial park could replicate a natural river. And maybe it doesn't, I really can't say since I've never been. But it seemed to me that the USNWC was able to cram a lot of the excitement of rafting in one condensed (and relatively 'safe' I presume) area.
The park has, as our guide explained, class 2 through 4 whitewater rapids. There are 6 classes of whitewater all together. Our guide used “Niagara” as an example of what class 6 whitewater would be like (which I think may be an exaggeration), but essentially we were in the most difficult whitewater you could experience without being fairly experienced at whitewater rafting. I was totally soaked in a matter of no time.
I'm really glad I payed attention to the safety procedures explained at the beginning. It wasn't long into our trip that one of my roommates went overboard as we attempted to “surf” a rapid in the class 2 whitewater track. We were able to catch up to her and our guide pulled her back in the raft pretty quickly. But it was pretty obvious then that these rapids were intended to be challenging.
At the end of the trip, as we were going down the track with class 4 whitewater, and feeling a little daring, our guide attempted to get our raft to ride the edge of a class 4 rapid, but at that time another raft was quickly approaching and as they slammed into us, 3 of their passengers went overboard. We were able to pull one of them into our raft in a nearby eddie. Not wanting to be outdone by that rapid, we attempted again to ride the edge of the rapid, and I'm not sure at what point, but I remember the left side of the raft raising way up and realizing that capsizing was eminent. So I held onto my paddle as I plunged into the highly aerated whiteness. Everyone ended up being pulled in different directions. I did my best to follow the safety procedures, keeping my feet up and facing downstream, but it was slightly difficult in the constantly changing currents. As I more or less tumbled through the water, bumping into rocks here and there, I saw a couple people on the shore and could faintly hear them yelling at me to grab ropes that were just out of my reach. It was not long though before I felt myself in the calm waters at the end of the course and was pulled into another raft. Capsizing, for me, was the best part of the trip!
To sum the experience up, the USNWC was extraordinarily fun, and well worth every penny (that I didn't have to pay, thanks!).